BOOKS/Alvena Bieri

Freedom of Speech is Still Important

Freedom of speech is guaranteed to Americans in the Bill of Rights in our Constitution. How this basic right has been interpreted and often abused through our history is the subject of many books.

Two recent ones are Christopher M. Finan’s From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America (Beacon Press, Boston, 2007) and Books on Trial by Shirley and Wayne Wiegand (OU Press, Norman, 2007). Close to home here, the latter book is about police raids in the 1940s on Progressive Book Store and Communist Party Headquarters in Oklahoma City.

Finan’s book covers the years after the first World War, very tense times in our political past. Following the war there were hard adjustments to be made. Even strikes by labor unions greatly alarmed some citizens. The famous socialist Eugene Debs was still in prison after the war and was not released until the Harding administration in 1923. It was against this background that the attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, started what outspoken critics of the government came to call the Palmer Raids, attacking and seizing material from the advocates of freedom of speech. The underlying fear of the time was that Russians would take over the world, a fear that was to come again in later years. The famous anarchist Emma Goldman once said, “Don’t confuse conformity with security,” a timely message for us today, I think.

Anyway, it was during Woodrow Wilson’s administration, in January 1920, that literally thousands of Communists and other dissenters were arrested and put in jail with very little regard for their rights under the Constitution. Some historians think that Palmer hoped to take advantage of the fear of radicals to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1920.

It was about this time that the American Civil Liberties Union got started with the young Roger Baldwin as its effective leader. Its aim was to give legal support to free speech and try to intervene with the government for the same goal.

The next free-speech crisis came in the 1940s. The general term applied to the fears of Americans was the “Red Scare,” a phenomenon that penetrated all parts of the country. Books on Trial tells the unbelievable story of the July, 1940 raids on the Oklahoma City headquarters of the Communist Party, located in the Progressive Bookstore at 129 W. Grand St. Authorities seized thousands of books, including some by Jack London and Leo Tolstoy, as well as Karl Marx. Many young activists were caught up in this, and some spent time in jail.

The last two free-speech problems in the first book arose during the Joe McCarthy time and in our time with the Patriot Act. I have two revealing little stories set in the first time, one ironically from the state of Wisconsin, which usually is thought of as a progressive place. When I was in school at the University of Wisconsin, people on the campus were upset about the activities of their senator. I remember wearing buttons in protest and talking a lot about the problem. A year before that I had lived in Willard Hall on the Oklahoma A&M campus, where my part-time job was running the elevator about two hours a day. We employees, from professors to elevator operators, were all required to sign a loyalty oath!

The Patriot Act today is in that same spirit of suppression. Doesn’t it seem ironic that in saying we uphold the great American value of freedom that we deny it in so many forms? The ACLU has helped, but we all need to re-read the Bill of Rights!

Alvena Bieri, a longtime contributor to The Progressive Populist and resident of Stillwater, Okla., died June 20.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2008

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